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Alike, but not alike:
Broadcast vs. ham radio

by Mark Persons
Radio World Article
October 27, 2021

Writer Mark Persons W0MH, CPBE.  The author retired after 44 years, but continues to mentor broadcat engineers.  Wife Paula is W0HA.
Experience Experience Experience Experience in amateur radio can be a boon to the radio engineer.

Starting in the 1920s and through the 60s, almost every broadcast engineer was a licensed amateur radio operator.  That has changed a bit, but the importance of being a ham has not.  Both venues involve getting an RF signal from point A to point B.  But it is interesting to note that radio broadcast and amateur radio are similar and yet so different.  For those who don’t know much about ham radio, I’ll tell you that communicating locally or internationally, via licensed amateur radio, can be a fascinating and challenging hobby.  There are about 700,000 hams in the U.S. and an equal number worldwide. 

Broadcast and amateur radio operate with the same laws of science.  Transmitters, transmission lines, antennas and receivers make up an RF path to convey a message.  Broadcast engineers know that signal propagation on AM and FM bands is dramatically different.  It is because our FM band is roughly 100 times the frequency and 1/100th the RF wavelength of that on the AM band.  Engineers also know that 950 MHz STL signals are line-of-sight and roughly a ten times jump in frequency from FM broadcast frequencies.  Each band has its own challenges in getting a useable signal through.

Amateur radio operators have about 30 bands of frequencies with opportunities to explore from below the AM broadcast band up through GHz and to light.  Hams are not limited to amplitude or frequency modulation, but often use single sideband and many modes of digital.  A few communicate via teletype and/or transmit television images to friends.  Yes, some hams still use Morse Code to send and receive messages in their hobby.  Code proficiency is no longer required for getting an amateur radio license, but it is a fun personal challenge to many.   

What I find valuable is applying what I know about amateur radio in my work as a broadcast engineer.  And, of course, it works both ways.  Forward power, reflected power, transmission line loss, antenna gain, transmitter power amplifier efficiency, and path loss are all dictated by the same rules.  The mysteries and science of RF propagation to a new broadcast engineer are a fact of life for radio amateurs. 

Hams deal with the wave propagation challenge every day.  Communicating across the world via radio waves may be lost on the Internet/Millennial Generation, but it can be a real challenge for those who want more out of life.  International contacts are common during peaks in the eleven-year solar cycle.  With 400 watts I was able to make contact with a station in Antarctica from home using a good antenna.  I made contacts to Europe, Japan, Russia and even Australia with just 100 watts from my car, mostly on 20 meters (about 14 MHz).  Talk about distracted driving!  Australia is halfway around the world from Minnesota.  The RF path between us was only open for a half hour.  It is always a thrill to be on the right frequency at the right time.

As with broadcast, profanity is not allowed on amateur radio.  Don’t confuse amateur radio with Citizens Band.  CB is a sad story about people transmitting on the 27 MHz band using bad language and unacceptable social conduct.  Hams can lose their licenses for that.

Broadcasters are licensed for specific frequencies at specific power levels.  Hams might run up to 1500 watts of RF peak power in most bands of frequencies.  Good operating practice is to transmit with only the amount of power necessary to reach the other end.   Some delight in the challenge of contacting amateur stations world-wide with a watt or less of power.

Broadcasters modulate AM, FM, and/or digital as per their license.  FCC rules mandate tightly controlled occupied bandwidths.  Hams select one of many modulation types, although the bands are divided into segments for each modulation type, just to keep order.  Broadcast transmitters are required to maintain a tight frequency tolerance.  Hams can wander up and down authorized frequency bands looking for a clear spot to call CQ (calling anyone listening who might want to talk.)  They can and do easily converse with hams in foreign countries.  That is far more fun and challenging than just listening.

Hams don’t “broadcast” to a city or the world.  They don’t play music or run program as you will find on the AM and FM broadcast bands.  Instead, amateurs communicate with other hams one on one by voice, digital or Morse Code.  Sometimes hams participate in “nets” where groups meet on frequency to share ideas.  The net control operator turns the frequency over to one at a time for the rest of the group to hear.

In broadcasting, almost anyone can buy a station, a construction permit, or a license.  It just takes money.   Amateur radio is different.  For a fee of about $35.00, a person can write an exam to prove his or her knowledge of electronics and FCC rules.  With a passing grade, the FCC will issue a license to that person, good for ten years with a cost of only $35 to renew.  Try that in broadcasting!

Amateur Radio currently has three levels of licensing: Technician, General, and Extra.  Climbing that ladder with examinations gets hams more privileges and operating frequencies.  Many thousands have done it and so can you, especially now that proficiency with Morse Code is no longer required.

Some hams prefer communicating by Morse Code

Call Signs
Amateur Radio operators and broadcasters are issued call signs by the FCC.  Each call is unique and recognized world-wide.  There is only one WGN in Chicago and only one W0HA for my wife Paula and only one W0MH for me.  The (0) is zero, not O.  Call signs in other parts of our country use numbers 1 through 9 separating the prefix from the suffix.  They start with a G in England, XE in Mexico and the list goes to over 300 countries.  Because there are so many hams nowadays, new callsigns in this country look something like KF2XYZ.  To be clear, broadcast stations have call signs, but broadcast owners do not.  An amateur call sign is assigned to an individual person.

Hams use their call signs to identify every ten minutes and at the end of a conversation.  Broadcast stations, as you know, are required to ID once an hour.  A broadcast ID has a call sign and city.  Hams only use their call sign.  They might be mobile, on the water or even airborne.

The Society of Broadcast Engineers has a “Chapter of the Air” meeting on amateur radio the second Sunday of each month on 14.205 MHz single sideband.  Net control is Hal Hostetler, WA7BGX in Tucson, Arizona.  It starts at 2400 GMT.  That is 6 pm Central Time in Minnesota during the winter and 7 pm in the summer.  Hams check in and tell what has been happening in their lives, such as attending an NAB convention or SBE meeting.  This group has participants from coast to coast.  

Morse Code
While walking into the engineering room of a station, I heard the Morse Code letter B (Dah-Dit-Dit-Dit.)  It didn’t take long to realize the sound was coming from a Best brand Ferrups uninterruptible power supply.  The “B” was telling me that its battery needed replacing.  The letter H is a high temperature alarm.  Very clever of them.  Knowing Morse Code also comes in handy on 450 MHz Transmitter Studio Links with Morse identifiers. For those Morse challenged, a phone call to a local ham could reveal the answer when the sound that is played over a phone.  

Morse Code is another way of speaking English.  It is not that difficult to learn.  If I can copy code with a severe hearing loss, then you can too.  (I was a U.S. Army sergeant in Vietnam 1968-69.)  Even my wife Paula passed a 20 word per minute code exam to get her Extra Class amateur license.  As mentioned, code is not required nowadays.  Many hams find it a preferred mode of operation because it cuts through the noise so well.  Many hams refer to Morse Code as the original digital communication mode. 

The Ham Hobby
Some radio amateurs like to design and build equipment.  Many like to work on antennas.  Most like to chat with friends on the radio.  Some chase DX (long distance contacts) to stations in foreign countries.  They proudly stick a pin in a world map at each far-off location.  Astronauts are licensed amateur radio operators.  It is a real thrill to talk to a ham aboard the International Space Station.  That can be done with just a few watts of power on VHF or UHF.  The old adage is true, if you can see it, you can talk to it. 

Broadcast engineers who are licensed amateur operators have a better handle on the world of electronics.  Having a ham license is one more way of showing their peers that they know something about RF.  It is another feather in their cap.
"Amateur radio operators have about 30 bands of frequencies, with opportunities to explore from below the AM broadcast band up through GHz and to light."   

For more information on amateur radio, go to the ARRL, the National Association for Amateur Radio at:  Learn more in a video at, search term "WiAW ARRL Station Tour." or


Mark Persons, WØMH, is a Life Member of the Society of Broadcast Engineers, and one of only 10 people to receive its John H. Battison Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Also find the article at: Radio World


email to Radio World Magazine:  I really appreciated the article from Mark Persons on amateur radio. Unfortunately, as Mark mentioned, with cell phones and the internet, the youth of today can't be bothered with amateur radio and that poses a problem to get new broadcast engineers. As a kid, I was really into music and where did music come from, why, the radio, where else. So I was addicted to AM radio. While my parents watched television, I sat in a different room listening to radio, DXing the AM dial and the shortwave bands on an old Zenith chassis with its 12 inch electromagnetic speaker and its metal 6F6 output stage that burned the skin off my forearms more than once. The good thing is that most of the hams at that time used AM so I could listen to them without the luxury of a beat frequency oscillator that the Zenith didn't have. So after listening for years, I got the old Ameco study guide and a key from Olson Radio and went about getting a novice license in 1961. Had a lot of fun with a homebrew single 6L6 running off an old TV power transformer and 5U4. When I got a "real" license I added another 6L6 and a 12AX7 and made an AM rig, wow, a Heizing choke and downward modulation on 40 all the way. Well, that led to a First Phone license when I turned 16 and wound up as Chief Engineer of a commercial classical station after the Chief passed away on Christmas morning. Sure the transmitter was a lot bigger and a lot more sophisticated than the 6L6 rig but from the years of building ham transmitters, receivers, and antennas, walking into a broadcast station was not a shock (pardon the pun). I think there are two things that make a great broadcast engineer, one is a background as a ham and second an appreciation for music as it trains your ears to good audio. I still have my ham license and operate regularly as does my wife. The old 6L6's are gone but still operate with some homebrew gear and a Collins S line, no solid state gear here.  I am pushing 73 now and if I was 10, I would have followed the same path as I did knowing what I know now.  Ron Schacht, K3FUT, Kensett, Iowa.

11-30-2021:  Mark, I compliment you in an Excellent broadcast/amateur radio article in the Oct 2021 RadioWorld magazine.  Thank you for countering the misalignments publicized in the television programs of NCIS and CSI dramatizations concerning amateur radio operators.  After all, amateur radio is the original “internet” connection.  73 Jimmy "Jimbo" Ishee, KD4GS, Columbiana, Alabama.


11-30-21:  Having been an amateur radio operator for more than 67 years, and a once in a while contributor to Radio World, I want to compliment Mark Persons on his article in the October 27th. Issue. It is the best explanation of the amateur radio hobby that I have ever read. There is nothing more that I could add to describe "Hamming" to both the technical and non-technical, and I will rely on it to explain and recruit more hams to our hobby. 73, John Seibels, K4AXV, Coumbia, South Carolina.


11-12-2021:  I would like to tack on an anecdote to Mark Persons' article, "Alike, but Not Alike: Broadcast vs. Ham Radio."  I live in the Washington DC area and have been a pro broadcaster since 1979, but didn't jump into Amateur radio until 2009.  When I did, I did so with both feet.  I even changed my ringtone on my cellphone to the Morse characters "CQ", which Hams use to call out over the air to talk to other hams.  As a frequent commuter bus rider in this town, I have to transfer buses many times at the Pentagon depot. Many of my fellow passengers are military folks who disembark there for their days' duties. One morning my phone rang (dah-dit-dah-dit, dah-dah-dit dah) and a loud guffaw went up from the back of the bus. One of the other passengers was either a Ham or part of the Signal Corps, recognized the pattern and got the joke.  Broadcast Radio and Ham Radio.  Love 'em both.  Alan Peterson KJ4IVD, Springfield, Virginia.



11-10-2021:  Hi Mark, I was pleased to see the photo of the two of you accompanying your excellent "RadioWorld" article on the similarities and differences between ham radio and broadcast radio. Very well done!  tnx & 73, Rich Moreson,W2VU, Bloomfield, New Jersey


11-09-2021:  Alike but not alike.  Thanks for the nice description/comparison!  Bob Wilson, WA9D in Oregon, Wisconsin.


11-08-2021:  Thanks for this overview article…interesting to me.  I was a broadcaster first for a number of years, and didn’t get licensed in Ham Radio until 1990.  In the early years, it seemed that many of the engineers I worked with were hams.  Maybe not so much anymore.  But one of them proved a worthy ‘Elmer’ to me, and got me up and running on Ham over 30 years ago.  There are indeed many similarities, at least in the technical aspects.  When I started in broadcasting, a 3rd class license was required.  Every person overseeing an air shift needed to take transmitter readings to ensure compliance in power output.  Other ‘off air’ duties included making sure we powered down or up at the appropriate times to sunrise or sunset, check the tower lights, and other similar tasks.

As time went on, the 3rd class license requirement was dropped, as were the requirements of the broadcasters to be knowledgable of power readings, and such. They were fun years…two turntables, three cart decks, and a microphone staring you in the face.  No automation, no computers, and even having the time to use the bathroom on a 6-hour shift was pretty much limited to the 4 1/2 minute UPI news feed at the top of the hour.  My last years in broadcasting were distilled down to recording cuts and saving them with specified file names. 

Of course, Ham Radio is more recreational.  The content is not controlled by a station log, but by the person on the other end of the QSO. But there was still the magic of being on the other side of a microphone.  If conditions were good, it was not unusual for me to work a number of QSOs before and after being not on the air as a broadcaster.  I am grateful for the broadcast engineers I’ve known over the years…keeping us on the air with our broadcast stations, as well as helping me get into ham radio. 
73, Scott McIntire, K7DXT, Hotchkiss, Colorado.


10-28-2021:  Great R/W Article.  Hi Mark, I found your article insightful and very relatable.. Thanks for writing it and I’m glad Radio World felt it was worthy of inclusion in Radio World.  73  Conrad Trautmann, N2YCH, Cumulus Media, New York City, NY.


10-27-2021:  Howdy from W0SO.  Hello Mark….enjoyed your article regarding amateur radio in “Radio World. “  Nicely done!  Yes, I certainly remember when all of us were hams.  A different time.  Gary Liebling, Great Plains Media, Lawrence, Kansas.  

10-27-2021: We have a lot in common!  Your article was great. I also read your QST article a few months ago.  Keep up the good work!  73  Dave Hershberger, W9GR, Nevada City, California.

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